AMLO’s first year: Concern over security and economy looms

A year into his administration, his successes are being overshadowed by gang violence, a persistent issue in Mexico.

AMLO conference
Mexico's President Lopez Obrador took office on December 1, 2018 [File: Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

Every weekday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador walks on stage at 7am to address journalists and take questions.

The daily “mananera” has become a fixture of the 66-year-old’s left-wing administration since taking office on December 1, 2018, on promises to usher in a new era of politics by rooting out rampant corruption and trim government spending.

During the first 12 months of his six-year term, Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, has turned the luxurious presidential compound in Mexico City into a public park; has cut down on his security detail; has sold off the country’s lavish presidential jet; and slashed government salaries, including his own by more than half.

The president’s austere tack has captured the imagination of many in Mexico. He put in place scholarships and grants as well as training and employment programmes for young people. He also expanded pensions to the elderly and government workers, and created a stipend for people with disabilities. 

But a year into his administration, Lopez Obrador’s successes are now being overshadowed by an issue that has beset those before him: drug-fuelled violence which has caused more than 200,000 deaths in about 10 years and continues to wrack the country.

As of December, homicides were on track to reach 35,000 in 2019, exceeding last year’s record of 33,000 and becoming the highest in 20 years of statistics.

And although the president’s popularity still remains high, his approval ratings have fallen from 80 percent to 60 percent in the span of a year, according to the latest polls, with voters citing security and drug-related crime as their top concern.

“We cannot pin the current security dynamics entirely on AMLO because they have been built up over a long period of time,” Eduardo Moncada, a political scientist at Barnard University in New York City who specialises in organised crime, told Al Jazeera.

“But the government has struggled to find or define its policy,” he said.

mexico drugs
Chihuahua state police officers at a checkpoint in Janos, Chihuahua state, northern Mexico [Christian Chavez/ AP photo] 

Botched campaign

Concern over law and order came to the fore after a recent string of high-profile security incidents.

In October, just weeks after more than a dozen police officers were ambushed and killed in the central state of Michoacan, at least 13 people died in ensuing confrontations during a botched campaign to arrest the son of convicted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in the northern city of Culiacan.

The attempted arrest of Ovidio Guzman also ended in a deeply embarrassing failure for the government: after gunmen from El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel set dozens of cars on fire and took security officials hostage, officials were forced to release Ovidio Guzman and admit the operation had been poorly planned.

Lopez Obrador was dealt yet another blow in November when three women and six children from a Mormon breakaway group with dual US and Mexican nationality were killed in an ambush near the border with the United States.

“We are never going to opt for war, for confrontation using force,” Lopez Obrador said in a news conference after the incident. “What matters to us are people’s lives.”

Adding to the pressure, US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he plans to designate Mexican cartels as “terrorist” organisations, a move blasted by Mexico as “interventionism”.

“Since 1914, there hasn’t been a foreign intervention in Mexico and we cannot permit that,” Lopez Obrador said on Friday during his daily news conference, referring to the US occupation of the port of Veracruz 105 years ago.

“Armed foreigners cannot intervene in our territory,” he said.

During his campaign, Lopez Obrador pledged to overturn militarised crackdowns on cartels and instead address poverty and inequality in a country where just under half the population is classified as poor.

Lopez Obrador also created a new civilian National Guard and proposed amnesty for low-level criminals, with “Hugs, not bullets”, becoming one of his campaign slogans.

But in a country long accustomed to violence, many have begun questioning his strategy and expect the issue to become a defining point if left unresolved over the next five years.

Analysts contend that hardline tactics over the past 13 years, launched by former President Felipe Calderon, have not only failed to end gang violence, but also led to a fragmented criminal landscape where control over territory is constantly in flux, posing a unique challenge to any law enforcement body.

“He is threading the needle between being a pragmatist with a complicated reality, and being true to his leftist roots,” Moncada said. 

AMLO inauguration
Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador taking part in a ceremony during his inauguration in Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico [File: Edgard Garrido/Reuters] 

What is to come

Critics say AMLO, who has been known to delegate most foreign-relations decisions to his top diplomat, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, has prioritised maintaining good political and trade relations with the US, Mexico’s main trading partner, above other considerations.

In June, Trump, who has made stemming a surge in irregular crossing from the US southern border a core issue of his 2020 re-election bid, threatened Mexico with tariffs starting at 5 percent and rising as high as 25 percent if it did not deter migrants from Central American countries from reaching US soil.

Lopez Obrador agreed to toughen measures and deployed thousands of National Guard officers to Mexico’s borders who have stopped and detained migrants, in a move US officials credited with reducing the number of migrant apprehensions at the US-Mexico border.

“The government of Lopez Obrador reacted in a way that many did not expect,” Carlos Peterson, Mexico senior analyst for the Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera. 

“He wants to avoid any conflict so he has been caving in to Trump’s demands,” Peterson said. 

Lopez Obrador throwing the first pitch during the opening celebrations of the Alfredo Harp Helu Stadium in Mexico City [File: Henry Romero/Reuters] 

And although Lopez Obrador has so far resisted the US pressure to turn Mexico into a designated safe third country – which would force Central American migrants to seek asylum in Mexico, rather than in the US – he agreed to measures that force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the lengthy asylum application process which involves interviews and providing a long list of supporting documents.

Under the policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or Remain in Mexico, which began in January, Mexico agreed to allow migrants to stay in the country while they wait for immigration court hearings in the US. The move has forced thousands of migrants, among them families with young children, to live for months in crowded shelters in high-crime border cities or on the streets.

Rights groups have blasted the move, which they say has turned Mexico into an extension of US policy and puts vulnerable migrants – most of whom have fled extreme poverty, gang violence and political persecution in Central America – in harm’s way, amid gang battles over drug and people-smuggling routes.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s economy, Latin America’s second-largest, has stagnated as the domestic investment has slowed and investor confidence has been shaken by some of Lopez Obrador’s policy moves.

The economy contracted by 0.1 percent during the first half of 2019, entering a mild recession, and was flat in the third quarter, according to revised data by the national statistics agency.

Lopez Obrador has pledged to lift growth to 4 percent, but his decision to cancel a partly built $13bn new airport in Mexico City and his retreat from a government plan to open up the oil and gas industry to private capital have pummeled the nation’s building industry and raised doubts about the president’s economic credentials. 

In June, Mexico became the first and only country to ratify the trade deal which would replace NAFTA, known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The US Congress, which is facing opposition from the Democrats, has yet to ratify and the Canadian Parliament has yet to approve the deal.

And yet to his supporters, AMLO is still a champion of the poor who is seeking to improve the quality of life for millions of people who have been marginalised for decades by previous administrations.

Observers say he has succeeded in implementing a host of his signature topics: the creation of structural, social and economic development programmes. 

For Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights in the Washington Office on Latin America, in order to meaningfully combat inequality in the country, Mexico would have to strengthen its judicial institutions, a potentially lengthy and difficult task, which Lopez Obrador has yet to embark on. 

“It’s not easy to be successful in such a short period of time,” Meyer told Al Jazeera.

“There is no magic bullet to addressing Mexico’s violence or its other social problems, there is no easy quick fix.”  

Lopez Obrador greeting residents before the launching of a reconstruction programme in Juchitan de Zaragoza, Oaxaca state [Press Office of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Handout via Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera